By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 13, 2004
St. John Chrysostom Melkite Catholic Church invites people from around the archdiocese to its 39th annual Mid East Festival May 22 and 23, to enjoy parish-made Mediterranean foods and to enlighten and enliven their minds and spirits with Eastern culture and spirituality.
That means everything from enjoying “jam sessions” of Arabic folk music, to learning about the iconography of the Melkite church, to feasting on homemade foods such as vegetarian stuffed grape leaves with fava beans and chickpeas and the eggplant spread called babaghanouj.
The pastor, Father John Azar, will conduct church tours where visitors can learn of the Eastern church heritage. Melkites are Byzantine Catholics of Middle Eastern origin and descendants of the early Christians of Antioch, one of the five great centers of the ancient church, along with Jerusalem, Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople. Father Azar will point out religious imagery in the gold-accented worship space such as the icon screen before the altar, very characteristic of a Byzantine, or Greek, church, that is opened during the Easter season and considered a gate to heaven.
“The goal of the festival is to share our traditions of food, music, culture and spirituality with the surrounding community and, of course, it’s one of the largest fund-raisers of the parish,” said Father Azar, who is the youngest of 12 children of Syrian parents. “We welcome everyone to come and enjoy and share in the life of our community, and we welcome them to worship with us at our service of Divine Liturgy which begins at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday . . . Another highlight of the festival is guided tours of what a Byzantine church looks like and the mystery and symbolism of all the items in an Eastern church.”
The Mass, at which Roman Catholics may receive Communion, is in English and Arabic.
On May 7 a host of volunteers were busy in the parish hall with kitchen duty, chopping parsley, onion and cilantro and then mixing it with ground meat for kafta, to be served with yogurt and cucumber salad, hashweh, a rice pilaf with ground beef, spices and pine nuts, stuffed grape leaves, meat pie and green beans with tomato sauce.
“Everything is from scratch. It’s prepared with love—healthy balanced meals. It’s traditional food we grew up on in Lebanon,” said the co-chair of the cooking committee, Susie Hagley.
Raising her children with the culture and traditions of the Melkite Church she grew up with in Lebanon is very important to her, she said, adding that she met her husband at St. John’s. She travels back to Lebanon yearly to visit her parents, and noted that there is a lot of respect between practicing Muslims and Christians there.
Her kitchen co-chair, Janisse Haddad, said, “It’s a way to share the good things of our culture. We have a rich heritage we are proud of and we welcome everyone.”
Also on the festival menu are a chicken plate that will include shish taouk, a grilled, marinated chicken kabob with garlic sauce, and a vegetarian plate that will include a falafel sandwich, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, tabouleh and olives. All plates are served with salad, pita bread and coffee or tea. There will also be a children’s plate with hashweh, kafta or chicken and stuffed grape leaves. On the to-go menu will be meat pies, baked kibbeh tarays, tabouleh, babaghanouj and hummus.
Michael Shikany, whose four grandparents were all from Lebanon, got off kitchen duty that day but reflected on how he quickly rose in rank through the years from dishwasher to festival chairman. This year he’s co-chair along with Kam Nassar and recommends the baked kibbeh, one of the most traditional foods being dished out.
Shikany said the festival generally attracts 500 to 700 people, but this year they are trying to draw bigger crowds by advertising in churches and community newspapers and by adding an inflated jumping area on the front lawn for children, as well as face painting, a moonwalk and other games. They will also repeat last year’s “very, very successful” Oriental rug sale and have a silent auction and line dancing called Dabké to Arab folk music with the oud and didabakki (drum) instruments.
“People get up and jam. Different musicians come in and play. . . The food is the main reason people come and they stay for the dancing,” Shikany said. “And no, we won’t have any belly dancers.”
Visitors can browse for books, art and icons at the Byzantine church store, and pendants, crosses and other Byzantine jewelry will be for sale. In addition to tasting the rich sounds and flavors of Arab culture, Shikany said the festival will also expose visitors to “the beauty of the art, the great diversity within the Arab culture. It goes from North Africa to the Arab Peninsula to the Middle East.”
The parish is made up of 50 to 60 families from countries across the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, as well as Americans of Arab descent and those from Europe and South America. There is a Palestinian couple from Israel. He added that Manuel Maloof, former DeKalb County chief executive officer and owner of Manuel’s Tavern, is a member.
For Shikany, “it’s a continuance of a family tradition as well as a cultural tradition. My father and his brother and his father-in-law started this church,” he said, explaining that founding members had originally written to leaders of the Melkite Church “and asked for a priest. ” The church was founded in 1954 and moved in 1957 to the mansion on Ponce de Leon Avenue formerly owned by Asa Candler, which was converted to a church.
Shikany also directs the choir, which is totally a cappella in the strict orthodox tradition.
“A lot of people come here from the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church. We don’t change the liturgy like they do in the Latin Church. A lot of people come here because they like that.”
Father Azar emphasized that even with all its diversity St. John Chrysostom is “not an ethic church” and “we’re open to all.” He explained that the Melkite church is governed by its own patriarch and synod of bishops but maintains communion with Rome.
“The faith is the same, but the expression of the faith is different . . . The experiences are different, but we’re going to get to the same goal,” he explained.
To name a few differences, their priests can marry if they do so in the church’s countries of origin before reaching the diaconate stage of priestly formation, and church members receive the sacraments, called holy mysteries, of Eucharist, baptism and chrismation (confirmation) at the same time. “It’s a very mystical spirituality, not something tangible. That’s really the big difference between the East and the West and therefore the church government and administration would be influenced,” Father Azar said.
He spoke of the importance of icons, or sacred images with a flat Byzantine look typically painted on a wooden panel and enameled on metal or made of mosaics.
“Iconography is a very important element of the Eastern church. It’s not simply art but ‘theology in color.’ It’s a teaching device—iconography . . . In the early church, teaching was done through art. This ancient form of church art called iconography is something peculiar to the Eastern church.”
He said that as the parish has members from throughout North Georgia, sometimes the travel time is a challenge, but they have “a dedicated group of parishioners.”
The festival is a great time to learn about the history of Arab Christianity. The traditions of the Melkite Church of Antioch originally followed the traditions of the Church of Antioch (then in Syria), but evolved to reflect the Greek or Byzantine culture, with Byzantium being the original name for Constantinople, then the capital of Greece. (St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church in Atlanta is of the Antiochian tradition.) They were given the name Melkite for following the faith of the Byzantine emperor, or melek.
In 1054 there was a split between the church based in Rome, the most powerful city in Western Europe, and the church based in Constantinople, which also spread her tradition and customs to surrounding countries, and the Church of Antioch stayed in communion with both. In 1724 it reaffirmed its communion with the Vatican, but Byzantine models in ritual and administration were the norm for all Melkites, and the Melkite Church of Antioch was formally divided between Greek Orthodox, who are not in union with Rome, and Greek Catholics. Melkite Catholics today believe they have a special responsibility to show their faithfulness to the Catholic Church, as expressed in their own unique heritage, in order to contribute to the healing of a fragmented world and a divided Christian church.
“A lot of people have never learned in their religious education anything about Eastern churches. However, a number of Catholic schools, churches and civic organizations have been inviting us to give presentations on the Eastern church,” Father Azar said. “The reality of Arab Christianity exists and the history of the church is tied to Middle Eastern Christianity because of the foundation of the early church spirituality and monasticism which all began in the East. It was all around the deserts and the surrounding areas of Syria, Palestine and Egypt that Christianity flourished.”
Back in the fellowship hall, Hagley spoke on behalf of the cooking committee, advising festival-goers to save room for Arabic coffee and dessert, with bakery items like atayef, or cheese or walnut pancakes, and maamoul, a cream of wheat pastry with nuts or dates and powdered sugar.
“We’re having a bake sale and it’s all Mediterranean desserts. Ladies at their homes make them and bring them to sell—baklava and a lot of different desserts,” she said. “We are a small church, but we need everybody’s support and you will enjoy our food . . . I love it!”
The festival will be held on Saturday, May 22, from
11 a.m.-7 p.m. and on Sunday, May 23, from noon-4 p.m. The church is located at 1428 Ponce de Leon Ave., NE, Atlanta, and can be reached at (404) 373-9522.